Should Some Bankers Be Prosecuted?

Report of the Business Standards Committee

Goldman Sachs
63 pp., available at
Brian Zak/Sipa/AP Images
Lloyd Blankfein, chairman and CEO of Goldman Sachs, and Al Sharpton at the Cooper Union, where President Barack Obama was giving a speech on financial regulation, New York City, April 22, 2010

More than three years have passed since the old-line investment bank Lehman Brothers stunned the financial markets by filing for bankruptcy. Several federal government programs have since tried to rescue the financial system: the $700 billion Troubled Asset Relief Program, the Federal Reserve’s aggressive expansion of credit, and President Obama’s additional $800 billion stimulus in 2009. But it is now apparent that these programs were not sufficient to create the conditions for a full economic recovery. Today, the unemployment rate remains above 9 percent, and the annual rate of economic growth has slipped to roughly 1 percent during the last six months. New crises afflict world markets while the American economy may again slide into recession after only a tepid recovery from the worst recession since the Great Depression.

In our article in the last issue,1 we showed that, contrary to the claims of some analysts, the federally regulated mortgage agencies, Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, were not central causes of the crisis. Rather, private financial firms on Wall Street and around the country unambiguously and overwhelmingly created the conditions that led to catastrophe. The risk of losses from the loans and mortgages these firms routinely bought and sold, particularly the subprime mortgages sold to low-income borrowers with poor credit, was significantly greater than regulators realized and was often hidden from investors. Wall Street bankers made personal fortunes all the while, in substantial part based on profits from selling the same subprime mortgages in repackaged securities to investors throughout the world.

Yet thus far, federal agencies have launched few serious lawsuits against the major financial firms that participated in the collapse, and not a single criminal charge has been filed against anyone at a major bank. The federal government has been far more active in rescuing bankers than prosecuting them.

In September 2011, the Securities and Exchange Commission asserted that overall it had charged seventy-three persons and entities with misconduct that led to or arose from the financial crisis, including misleading investors and concealing risks. But even the SEC’s highest- profile cases have let the defendants off lightly, and did not lead to criminal prosecutions. In 2010, Angelo Mozilo, the head of Countrywide Financial, the nation’s largest subprime mortgage underwriter, settled SEC charges that he misled mortgage buyers by paying a $22.5 million penalty and giving up $45 million of his gains. But Mozilo had made $129 million the year before the crisis began, and nearly another $300 million in the years before that. He did not have to admit to any guilt.

The biggest SEC settlement thus far, alleging that Goldman Sachs misled investors about a complex mortgage product—telling investors to buy what had been conceived by some…

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